How Businesses Are Adapting Customer Service Strategies in times of Disruption – Futurum Tech Webcast Interview Series

In this episode of the Futurum Tech Webcast — Interview Series, host Shelly Kramer is joined by Jeff Nicholson, global head of CRM at Pega to discuss how businesses are adapting customer service strategies in times of disruption. This conversation is intended as a preview to Pega’s upcoming Pegaworld iNspire virtual event being held on June 2, 2020, from 9 to 11:30am EDT. This high impact, low time commitment, interactive virtual event is free, sure to be packed with great information, and also available on demand for all registrants — you’ll find a registration link at the bottom of these show notes.

In our conversation, Jeff and I covered how businesses are adapting their customer service strategies in times of disruption. There are so many variables at play here it’s a little mind-blowing. You’ve got the work-from-home employees trying to adjust and still provide great service to customers, business network connectivity and security issues to deal with and so much more.

This is digital transformation personified. It’s always exciting to get an inside look at how organizations are pivoting, embracing technology, and developing customer service strategies that allow them to not only function, but also to set themselves up to future-proof their operations moving forward.

How Businesses Are Adapting Customer Service Strategies in times of Disruption

My discussion with Jeff included:

  • The challenges the Pega team is seeing from their customers and what they are specifically asking for;
  • Examples of what organizations can do to help meet their customer service challenges;
  • The role that building empathy for customers into customer service operations can play, in times of pandemic and beyond;
  • How organizations and using technology to help develop strategies for providing exceptional customer service in times of disruption;
  • How NPL-powered email bots can help speed up email response times;
  • How establishing microjourneys and smart case management systems can help reduce the time front line workers are spending tracking and managing all interactions.

Jeff shared a variety of fascinating real world use case examples that we can all learn from, and also talked a little about Pega’s Crisis Response Solutions Portfolio and how organizations are using and deriving value from that.

You can watch our interview here:

Or grab the audio version here:

It was great to hear from Jeff some innovative ways that businesses are embracing digital transformation, adapting their customer service strategies in times of disruption, and also to learn about the technology solutions they’re using to make that happen.

This is your reminder to make it a point to register for Pega’s upcoming Pegaworld iNspire virtual event being held on June 2, 2020, from 9 to 11:30am EDT. This high impact, low time commitment, interactive virtual event is free, sure to be packed with great information, and also available on demand for all registrants. Be sure and note that even if you can’t attend the virtual event in person on June 2nd, if you’ll register, you’ll be able to access the entire event on demand. Register for Pegaworld iNsprire here and I’ll “see” you there.

Here are a couple of resources that might be helpful developed by the Pega team:

Resource: 4 Steps to an Exceptional Customer Service Strategy in Times of Disruption

Resource: Strategies for Exceptional Customer Service During Unprecedented Times (Jeff’s blog post on this topic)

Please also check out my other interviews with Pega SMES, including:

The Pandemic is a Catalyst a Lot of Businesses Needed — It’s Time for a Massive Rethink (Don Schuerman, Pega CTO)

How Banks Are Capitalizing on Pandemic-Fueled Digital Transformation to Serve Customers (Marc Andrews, VP of Financial Services and Insurance)

This podcast is part of a special series focused around what leaders and companies are doing to help employees and customers deal with COVID-19. Be sure to subscribe so that you don’t miss out on amazing insights.

Disclaimer: The Futurum Tech Podcast is for information and entertainment purposes only. Over the course of this podcast, we may talk about companies that are publicly traded and we may even reference that fact and their equity share price, but please do not take anything that we say as a recommendation about what you should do with your investment dollars. We are not investment advisors and we do not ask that you treat us as such.

Image Credit: Pega


Shelly Kramer: Hello, and welcome to this special episode of The Futurum Tech Webcast Interview Series. And I am excited about my guest today, who is Jeff Nicholson, the Global Head of CRM for Pega. And we are going to talk today about how businesses are adapting their customer service strategies in times of disruption. Jeff, welcome. It’s great to have you.

Jeff Nicholson: It’s great to be here. Looking forward to today’s conversation.

Shelly Kramer: Absolutely. So before we get started, I want to do my due diligence and mention that this conversation is just a small preview of what you’ll see at the upcoming PegaWorld iNspire virtual event. And that’s being held on June 2nd from 9:30 to 11:00 AM Eastern daylight time, and I’ll include a registration link at the bottom of the show notes here. But I will tell you that I’ve attended the PegaWorld events for the past four or five years in person. They are fantastic. I learned a lot. And so, I hope that you’ll make time to register. Again, it’s a free event.

So Jeff, one of the things I’d like to explore here in this conversation is about how businesses are adapting their customer service strategies in times of disruption. There are so many variables at play here, it’s really a little mind blowing. You’ve got the work from home employees trying to adjust and still provide great service to customers. And you’ve got business and network connectivity issues to worry about. And then, you’ve got security issues. You’ve got challenges from the customer side and from the customer service agent side. And then beyond customers and agents, you’ve got an amazing, overwhelming increase in volume, backlogs, efficiencies that need to be taken into consideration.

Individually, these are not small things, but taken together, it can be so much for an organization. So talk with us a little bit about some of the challenges that you’re seeing out there. And also, then, what some of your customers are asking for. I’m really interested to hear about that.

Jeff Nicholson: Absolutely. And everything you said was spot on, Shelly. A few months ago, absolutely everything changed when it came to customer service. Those agents that you’re describing, they used to be able to sit side by side and ask for help and advice. They had a manager that could talk over their shoulder. All that’s gone. Now they’re not in the same floor, they’re on their couch, they’re at their kitchen table.

And they’re doing the best they can to serve our customers.

And let’s face it, those customers probably didn’t get connected directly to them when they needed help. They probably had to wait in a long cue, because volumes are through the roof. And as we go to even self-service these days, we’re encountering roadblocks there as well. I saw some sites say that our call volumes are extremely high, go to our FAQ, or online. And that’s what they were calling self-service. It’s not the same thing.

So consumers are having to wait a long time to be served and they are becoming frustrated, I think, with the types of things that are out there. So there are a lot of strategies that I’m seeing that are working very well in terms of helping customers during this time. One of the things I’m seeing is a shift from the traditional chat bots that just answer simple questions. What are your store hours, and things like that. That’s not going to help anyone during this time.

Organizations are transitioning to more intelligent chat bots or intelligent virtual assistants that have the ability to understand the customer’s journey. Journey has been a buzzword for a long time, but organizations that are breaking through are taking it seriously now. And these contextual or intelligent chat bots, as you can understand … Shelly, you just opened a claim perhaps yesterday, and now you’re trying to find the latest status. You can understand that. It’s not just saying for mortgage information over here, for credit card information. It actually understands what your journey is.

And it can say, Shelly, are you trying to find out your order status? Well, yes, I am. And it can tell you right there. And would you like to know the next steps in the process? Well, yeah, I would. And here’s a video that’ll explain it for you. And, in essence, it’s the same conversation that agent would want to have with you. And you’re being treated to a personal experience that’s about you, not about the business. And those are the types of examples of some of the strategies I’m seeing right now.

Shelly Kramer: Well, and to be fair, those really, they’re not new, right? And those aren’t new, necessarily, capabilities that are out there. What is always interesting to me, as my husband calls me a consumer, but as both a consumer and a technology freak, I pay a lot of attention to the processes and what happens along the way in my journey. And the very best thing that can ever happen is when you have an interaction and you go, “That was so easy.” You know? I mean, it was just like, I remember one example and this is sort of a no-brainer one, but you know how you sign up for subscriptions, and then you’re like, “Oh crap. I need to cancel that. How the heck am I…” And they don’t make it easy to ever find your subscriptions or cancel it.

I remember one time I went to Amazon and I was looking for my subscriptions and I literally just went in and Googled, cancel my subscription. Oh, you want to cancel your subscription? And they’re using some intelligent automation there and the process is a bit … But I remember going, Oh my gosh, if every single process would be like it. But the reality of it is, you don’t have to be in Amazon to be able to offer that kind of functionality to your customers.

And especially today, I’m thinking about, I have a couple of customer service interactions that are pending right now. And I literally have things on the floor of my office that I need to return, and I can’t get the kind of service that I need to return them. And I know the clock is ticking on the returns, but yet, I know what’s happening. I know where customer service agents teams are working and I’m trying to approach these interactions with extreme patience. But I don’t really think that ordinary, average customers really have that level of patience and are willing to wait around for, for technology to catch up. So really automation is the name of the game these days, I think.

And there’s also, tell us another … I know you and the team at Pega really have planted your flag in the concept of empathy, and I think that plays a tremendous role here. Maybe talk with us a little bit about that.

Jeff Nicholson: Well said. And during this time, you’re speaking of friction, it exists everywhere. And in customers’ lives, there’s enough friction as it is. And getting service shouldn’t be that way. And there’s a lot of people’s minds. So having empathy is at the cornerstone of what your customer service strategy needs to be. And part of that is, yes, ramping up service 24 by seven, so you can be there when your agents perhaps can’t. But it’s also, for example, going to where your customers are. Often, you might need service help, Shelly, but you don’t want to talk to someone, you just want to get your issue resolved.

Shelly Kramer: To be clear, I never want to talk to someone. To be clear. I never, ever-

Jeff Nicholson: Yeah. We’re not looking for a new BFF, right? We just want our issue solved. And if we can’t get that done through self-service, perhaps we might go to try web chat. We might go to the brand’s Facebook page, or in some cases, Twitter, email even. And we’re trying to get that resolved quickly and easily with as little friction as possible. And so, to have empathy, businesses need to, again, go where your customers are.

We’re seeing a movement to digital channels, like the ones we just described. And what’s interesting as you move to support your customers on things like web chat and Facebook messenger and so forth, you can actually handle interactions concurrently as a business. No longer are you just having a peer-to-peer, one-to-one interaction, one agent to one customer.

You’re able to handle multiple at the same time, which makes you more efficient as a business. It does actually help with your costs, but you’re going to where your customers are and providing that same level of service. And that’s a good example of, I think, an empathetic strategy of serving customers where they want to be served and having a nice outcome where it actually happens to also make you more efficient as a business.

Shelly Kramer: Well, yeah. And absolutely, when you’re thinking about micro journeys and smart case management that kind of helps reduce the time that these frontline workers are spending, I think that all of that absolutely leads to cost reductions, for sure.

So I love more than anything, whether I am having a conversation like this or whether I’m attending a live event, I’m all about stories, customer stories, use case examples. While I know that in some instances we might not be able to talk about customers by name, I know that you probably have some interesting insights about how people are using some of the technology that you offer in innovative ways, especially now. So let’s talk about some insider information. Give us some case studies.

Jeff Nicholson: Yeah, absolutely. So I’m thinking of one organization, they happen to have a lot of backlog and email requests, tens of thousands of emails that they desperately want to get to, but it was a manual process. You can think of what’s happening on both sides of the equation here. For customers, they’re waiting days and days and days, and it’s a black hole. They don’t know if it’s been opened. They don’t know if it’s been received. They don’t know anything, if it’s being worked on. And, of course, they sent those emails because they had an issue. It was something on their mind. So [inaudible] empathy.

On the other side of the business, you have just this backlog of work to be done and not enough people to do it. And so, the organization I’m thinking of, what they implemented is an email bot and it uses natural language processing to open up those emails automatically, read them. And it was called classifying entities, understanding what it’s about and automatically assigning them into cases.

And they were able to automate north of 40%, completely, without any human intervention. And an additional 30% was able to pass through with a human check and balance and on through. So it made the organization, yes, much more efficient, but think of what it’s done for customers. So you’re providing empathy at the same time as you’re driving costs out of the business. And they were able to do that in pretty short order.

Shelly Kramer: That’s really cool. And that’s a significant, 40% plus an additional 30%, that’s a significant result. That’s awesome. So anything else that you can think of that is a good use case?

Jeff Nicholson: In all these cases, you can look to areas where inefficiencies spread. What’s happened here, as you moved into home offices and changed the way processes work, because everything’s changed with how people are working, one approach that’s worked really well is to apply something called RPA, robotic process automation.

And we can apply that at the desktop level, so attended RPA, as well as in the service side, and that’s an unattended RPA. And where you have workers that, for example, working with modified desktop environments and systems that have been cobbled together for the home environment, not everything is completely automated anymore, and there’s a lot of busy work going on.

And so, we can apply RPA to automate some of that work. So the wrap-up after each call. If you’re going in and, for example, with a change of address, having to change the address in three, four, five different systems after the call, you can apply RPA to close some of those gaps so that your agents can get back to serving customers, which is what they’re supposed to be doing.

Shelly Kramer: So at a time when we need to focus on efficiencies and cost effectiveness more than ever before, I think, to me, that’s what’s exciting about some of the technology that’s available and some of the creative ways that we can use technology. Because moving forward, whether we’re talking about right now and when we’re still maybe perhaps in a work from home, work remotely mode, that moving forward, the impact of a pandemic on our economy and everything else, we need to be smart. We need to be efficient, we need to be cost effective. So maybe we can wrap up our conversation with some thoughts on how some of this technology can help lead us down the path to that cost effectiveness and efficiency.

Jeff Nicholson: Absolutely. And what’s interesting to think about is it’s not like digital transformation wasn’t a goal before all this happened. It certainly was. It was this big lofty goal, but there was not a sense of urgency. And now, we see organizations trying to quickly pivot and make changes as they need to.

And the key to doing this is something that you said earlier, which is the concept of a micro journey. You don’t have to solve everything overnight, but you have to get moving, and you have to make steady progress and continue to transition and keep an eye on whatever comes next. And the way to make that transition is move with what we call a micro journey at a time. So implement that intelligent virtual assist on the website, but start with a micro journey. What is the top reason for interaction? Start there. Same thing with an email bot. You might start with an email bot and apply it a micro journey at a time.

The difference with this strategy is it’s not a band-aid approach, it’s not a patchwork strategy. We can all remember, if you think back to your first vehicle perhaps, and you had to get inspected and there was a hole in the side. And rather than fix it properly, you just threw Bondo on it and it passed inspection. You always meant to get back to it and take off the sloppy job.

I see a lot of that happening right now. They’re standing up dumb bots instead of intelligent chat bots on the website as a patchwork strategy, but it actually disconnects the customer journey, not bring it together. So by applying a micro journey at a time with the right technology like that which we’re providing with case management and intelligent automation, once you do it once in one channel, so you might start with an email bot, you can use that micro journey and built on any channel, and apply on the website and apply it to the next.

So it’s a future-proof strategy that allows you to move with a customer journey, no matter where the customer goes. And the technology can actually form the bedrock for, frankly, whatever comes next, because we don’t know what’s going to come next. So you needed something that can actually move with you and have some permanence and not just be digital Bondo, right?

Shelly Kramer: That’s a great analogy. A couple of things as we close up. One, I’m pretty sure I need an email chat bot. But two, I think that your point is so salient in terms of, it’s actually really okay to fix what needs to be fixed right now, but that can’t be your strategy. You can’t leave the Bondo. And the same thing, sometimes we do this in our homes, right? You fix things just a little bit. And then, when you want to put it on the market, you’re like, “Oh my God, now we’re going to fix all the things that are wrong that we should have fixed before.” Whatever.

But I think that this is an opportunity to definitely do what you need to do right now, but this is where we need to be smart and build out plans. And I think more than ever before, organizations realize that this is not the time, it’s really never been the time to be a laggard when it comes to embracing digital transformation. And you don’t have to bite off the whole thing at one time, but you have to keep moving forward on that journey.

And it is a journey that never ends. You’re always iterating, you’re always testing, you’re always tweaking. You’re always looking at customer behavior and listening to your customers. And so, I think when you embrace that and you realize that Bondo is okay for a quick fix, but that really isn’t your long-term strategy, I think you’ll set yourself up, as you said, to future-proof your organization in ways that will benefit for a long time to come. Right?

Jeff Nicholson: Absolutely. And I think we’re at a point where the Bondo approach and doing it properly are going to end up costing about the same amount.

Shelly Kramer: Yep, that makes perfect sense. Well, Jeff, it’s been a great conversation this morning. I love starting my day with smart people. And this is a reminder for our audience that the upcoming PegaWorld iNspire virtual event is happening on June 2nd. It’s just a couple hours, a two and a half hour event. I’m sure it will be packed with tons great information. I’ll include a registration link in the show notes. The event is free to attend. And even if you can’t make it at that exact time on June 2nd, if you register, you’ll be able to access the event on demand. So, I highly recommend it. And Jeff, thanks so much for hanging out with me today. It’s been great.

Jeff Nicholson: I’ve had a great time, Shelly. Thanks for having me.

Thank you for joining us on this week’s Futurum Tech Podcast, the Interview Series. Please be sure to subscribe to us on iTunes, and stay with us each and every week as we bring more interviews and more shows from our weekly Futurum Tech Podcast.


Author Information

Shelly Kramer is a Principal Analyst and Founding Partner at Futurum Research. A serial entrepreneur with a technology centric focus, she has worked alongside some of the world’s largest brands to embrace disruption and spur innovation, understand and address the realities of the connected customer, and help navigate the process of digital transformation. She brings 20 years' experience as a brand strategist to her work at Futurum, and has deep experience helping global companies with marketing challenges, GTM strategies, messaging development, and driving strategy and digital transformation for B2B brands across multiple verticals. Shelly's coverage areas include Collaboration/CX/SaaS, platforms, ESG, and Cybersecurity, as well as topics and trends related to the Future of Work, the transformation of the workplace and how people and technology are driving that transformation. A transplanted New Yorker, she has learned to love life in the Midwest, and has firsthand experience that some of the most innovative minds and most successful companies in the world also happen to live in “flyover country.”


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